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Translating the New White House Line

November 13, 1987|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

A good word from the White House isn't what it used to be.

President Reagan--hailed early in his Administration as "the Great Communicator" for his powers of positive persuasion with the public and Congress--went to bat this week for Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III by saying his top law enforcement official was "of sound mind" and "no embarrassment to me."

Reagan followed up a day later by saying Meese "didn't blow the last one," referring to federal appeals court Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg's nine days of fame as a Supreme Court nominee. Last week, Reagan had defended Ginsburg's marijuana smoking--which obliterated his chance at the high court--by saying Ginsburg was "not an addict."

These types of faint praise, along with angry rebuttal, may well be "a signal of a besieged government," say language experts and political observers, who note that language can transmit unspoken--and perhaps unintentional--messages about the Administration's public posture.

A Different Implication

Moreover, defensive phrases such as those recently used by the President often raise as many questions as they answer because they sometimes imply the opposite of what the words mean, some experts say. And the statements stand in sharp contrast to earlier pronouncements by an aggressive President who last November labeled Lt. Col. Oliver North "a national hero" and in March, 1985, called the Nicaraguan Contras "the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the (World War II) French Resistance."

"It's an administration under siege," said Roger Shuy, chairman of the linguistics department at Washington's Georgetown University. "And when you're under siege, it's not the same kind of military maneuver as when you're in control and attacking.

"It's a little bit like Nixon saying 'I am not a crook,' " he added, referring to the former President's defense of himself during the Watergate scandal.

Anticipating the Assaults

At times, even the President's advisers have adopted the language of fortification.

In March, just after he became Reagan's chief of staff during a peak in the Iran-contra scandal and when questions about the President's "management style" were rife, Howard Baker told reporters, "I do not see a hands-off President, or . . . an AWOL President."

Shuy said that, in general, negative statements are often made in anticipation of verbal assaults and are used instinctively as a way of "warding off attacks." But such verbal trench-digging may not be effective, he added.

"Typically a person doing PR will avoid negatives. They're harder (for people) to process," he explained.

Shuy and others noted that many of the President's defensive statements were made when the President was speaking off the cuff, instead of using more carefully conceived prepared remarks, as he most often does in public.

But Larry Berg of USC's Institute of Politics and Government also noted that Reagan's announcement on Wednesday of his third choice for the Supreme Court vacancy--written beforehand--was subdued and conciliatory.

"I did think his press announcement was one of almost begging the Senate" to confirm federal appeals Judge Anthony M. Kennedy, Berg said. "In general, it was a very humble President, something we haven't seen in a long time."

The Usual Bravado

In response to questions about the Kennedy announcement, however, Reagan was still somewhat combative. Asked if Kennedy's nomination was a concession to liberals, he replied, "When the day comes that I cave in to the liberals, I will be long gone from here."

That kind of response is a familiar one, said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James MacGregor Burns.

"Whenever he gets into a jam, he automatically covers it up with bravado," he said. For instance, when the tide against Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork reached flood proportions last month, Reagan said the only way Bork's nomination could be withdrawn was "over my dead body."

John Vickers, a linguist at Claremont Graduate School, said that he, too, "can't help but hear the echoes" of Nixon's "not a crook" statement in some of Reagan's recent pronouncements.

Avoiding Commitment

Some of Reagan's recent comments are "all full of negation so that what's being said is in fact extremely mild," Vickers said. Comments such as "not an addict" and "not an embarrassment to me" are "all things you can say about just about anybody," including "a stranger on the street," he said. Making a negative statement "certainly is a way of avoiding any kind of commitment," he added.

In the case of Reagan's defense of Ginsburg, Reagan resorted to what specialists call "conversational implicature," Vickers said. That means Reagan raised doubts about the very issue he was trying to clear up. The phrase "not an addict" does "conversationally imply that he (Ginsburg) uses a lot of drugs," he said.

The difference between early and late Reagan Administration language--particularly regarding Supreme Court nominees--is clear.

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